Up until my last novel, I’d never written in first person much beyond the occasional flash fiction piece. (You want to read my short fiction collection OLD SCHOOL, don’t you? C’mon, it costs less than that pastry you bought this morning and it has fewer calories.) I’d always been a third-person guy, liked being able to juggle the various points of view.
So how was it different? It was simpler, that’s for sure. I finished it faster. Nothing can happen in first person unless it happens to the protagonist, so the scope of the plot was narrowed. My third person plots tend toward the labyrinthine. I’m not an outliner, not one of those guys who already knows who the characters are and what they’re going to do before I start drafting. If I come up with a character I like enough to warrant his own point of view, even if he seems like a bit player at first, he’s likely to get up to something. Pretty soon, I have a half dozen plot lines running around that I need to weave together. That makes the last third or so of the book tough sledding. It also means I usually have a lot of work to do in re-write. I’ll realize that the book is going to get too long or too complicated and that, compelling as a character or story line may be, something has to go. But amputating that fictional limb means tying off or rerouting all the veins and arteries that feed in or out of it. And that’s a pain in the ass.
The good news is that often leaves me with a character and story idea that are great starting points for something new.
None of that re-write work was necessary with my first person novel. The plot was relatively simple, so I all had to do was the basic editorial cleanup attendant to any work – and I tend to do a lot of that as I go. I usually start each writing session by reading through the previous day’s output, and I end up editing that output in the process. So, for the first person novel, from first word to the final draft being shopped by my agent, the whole shebang only took three months.
I’ve read first-person novels where the plots get pretty hairy, but often I’m left feeling manipulated. The coincidences that have to be engineered to introduce a single character into these varied plot elements start to feel too forced. Once an author has left me with the deus ex machine vibe, it’s hard to get my trust back, to get me lost in the story again. I can’t surrender to the narrative because I’m left feeling like I have to protect my readerly virtue against inappropriate liberties. I want to be seduced by a story, to give in to it of my own free will, not be the victim of date rape.
For me, the fact that I don’t outline, that I don’t really know where a story is going when I start, helps to ensure that I don’t take such indecent liberties with the reader’s trust – and it seemed especially so when writing in first person. All I knew when I started was the single event that kicked off the story. From there, the protagonist and I had to muddle through together. I’d have to think what his next logical step would be, and in the process of writing that scene, discover what could lead logically to a next step and a next and a next. Since I didn’t have a pre-planned destination toward which to force the story or the character, I never felt like I had to engineer the introduction of a plot element. The evolution of the story felt organic, and the ending, when it came, surprised me as much as anyone. Because the villain, if I can even call the character that, had never felt like one.
But a question that someone reading the novel asked me concerning that very character has me wondering about something. Since the story is told in first person, the only character that gets to engage in any internal monolog, any ruminating about his world view or motives, is the protagonist. (And I do love me a little internal ruminating – that’s what gets me in trouble writing in the third person. A new character starts off on a little riff that gives me some new insight into his mind, and suddenly the guy seems too fully formed to not warrant a story of his own, and off he goes.)
In the first person, though, I only get to be inside the mind of one character. All other characters can be revealed only as he experiences them. So that question I was asked? It was about the “villain’s” mindset. We talked about it a little, what we can know based on that character’s words and actions, what the protagonist could logically surmise, but the truth is, beyond that, I couldn’t answer. I’ve never looked at any of the characters in this novel except through the protagonist’s eyes.
And now I’m wondering if I should have. I’m not the protagonist – I’m the writer. I am the god of this world. Should I know the heart of every character complete? On the one hand, does not knowing mean that I can’t, consciously or otherwise, invest my protagonist with any knowledge he has not rightly earned through the events of the story? On the other, would a more complete understanding of what makes all the other characters tick also then inform the story in some way that makes it richer and more authentic?
I’m leaning toward the first thought. For me, writing, and especially this first person writing, is a little like method acting. I want to be that protagonist to the extent I can – feel only what he feels, know only what he knows – so that he and I truly can muddle through this story together, both unblessed and unburdened by any unearned knowledge. But I can also understand where a deeper knowledge of the other characters might make for a richer story. In fact, I’m toying with the idea of writing a flash fiction piece from the point of view of the very villain in question to see what that character might have to tell me, and then reading back through the novel to see if the insights I gained make anything ring false or shallow.
I’m not sure there is a right answer, but what say ye, writer types of the interwebs?
Editor’s note: Yeah, throughout the post here I used male pronouns in those spots where the gender of the antecedent was indeterminate, like where, when I referred to my characters generically, I said he or called them guys. But what do you want me to do? Use that ridiculous “he or she” construction? Besides, most of my characters are guys. Hey, I’m all for English having a gender neutral set of pronouns, but until we get them, we’ll just have to manage. But next post, I promise – the gender neutral pronoun of choice will be she.